In the 1950s two preachers commanded national attention because of their advocacy, in the name of the Gospel, of theological, cultural, political, and societal issues that challenged conventional American attitudes. In anticipation of a national gathering of church leaders in his city, one of them, James A. Pike bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, invited the other, Presbyterian Eugene Carson Blake, to preach during the Holy Eucharist at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. In an earlier column, I state why this sermon (preached fifty years ago, December 4, 1960) was so important. In this column I provide excerpts from the sermon.
The Proposal: “Led, I pray by the Holy Spirit, I propose to the Protestant Episcopal Church that it together with the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America invite the Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ to form with us a plan of union both catholic and reformed on the basis of principles I shall later in this sermon suggest. Any other churches which find they can accept both the principles and the plan would also be warmly invited to unite with us.”
Why Union? “I am moved by the conviction that Jesus Christ, whom all of us confess as our divine Lord and Saviour, wills that his church be one. This does not mean that his church must be uniform, authoritarian, or a single mammoth organization. But it does mean that our separate organizations, however much we sincerely try to cooperate in councils, present a tragically divided church to a tragically divided world.”
“Never before have so many Americans agreed that the Christian churches, divided as they are, cannot be trusted to bring to the American people an objective and authentic word of God on a political issue. Americans more than ever see the churches of Jesus Christ as competing social groups pulling and hauling, propagandizing and pressuring for their own organizational advantages.”
Principles: “Let me begin by re-emphasizing the requirement that a reunited church must be both reformed and catholic. If at this time we are to begin to bridge over the chasm of the Reformation, those of us who are of the Reformation tradition must recapture an appreciation of all that has been preserved by the catholic parts of the church; and equally those of the catholic tradition must be willing to accept and take to themselves as of God all that nearly five hundred years of Reformation has contributed to the renewal of the church.”
Cutting the Gordian Knot: “I propose that, without adopting any particular theology of historical succession, the reunited church shall provide at its inception for the consecration of all its bishops by bishops and presbyters both in the apostolic succession and out of it from all over the world, from all Christian churches which would authorize or permit them to take part.”
“I mention first this principle of visible and historical continuity not because it is necessarily the most important to the catholic Christian but because it is the only basis on which a broad reunion can take place, and because it is and will continue to be the most difficult catholic conviction for evangelicals to understand and to accept. My proposal is simply to cut the Gordian knot of hundreds of years of controversy by establishing in the united church an historic ministry recognized by all without doubt or scruple. The necessary safeguards and controls of such a ministry will become clear when I am listing the principles of reunion that catholic-minded Christians must grant to evangelicals if there is to be reunion between them.”
Worship: “In worship there is great value in a commonly used, loved, and recognized liturgy. But such liturgy ought not to be imposed by authority or to be made binding upon the Holy Spirit or the congregations. More and more it would be our hope that in such a church, as is here proposed, there would be developed common ways of worship both historical and freshly inspired. But history proves too well that imposed liturgy like imposed formulation of doctrine often destroys the very unity it is designed to strengthen.”
Notes: In my search for an online publication of this sermon, I have found only one, a “full text of the sermon,” that was printed twenty-five years later in “The Ecumenical Review” 38/2 (April 1986), 140-148. Copyright restrictions do not allow me to post this document, but I will continue my efforts to find a copy that can be posted. The photo owned by Presbyterian Historical Society is published in “Eugene Carson Blake” by R. Douglas Brackenridge.